Congress Puts Federal Support for Urban Farming on the Chopping Block | Civil Eats

Congress Puts Federal Support for Urban Farming on the Chopping Block

Since the last farm bill, the USDA has spent more than $50 million to support food production in cities and suburbs, but the programs might not last.

Falani Spivey at the Urban Incubator Farm. (Photo credit: Lisa Held)

Falani Spivey at the Urban Incubator Farm. (Photo credit: Lisa Held)

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On a Monday morning in June, four farmers worked in fields framed by a Baptist church, an elementary school, and a community garden. The air was heavy with heat. Earlier, sleeping bees had been snuggled up in Christina Flores’ snapdragon and marigold blooms; now, butterflies flitted between the flowers she tended. Across a grassed waterway filled with clovers and vetches, Isaac Zama, grower of West African crops including bitter leaf and njama njama (a variety of huckleberry), used a broadfork to prepare a bed for planting.

At the top of a gradual slope, Falani Spivey leaned on a shovel as she pointed to several rows of malagueta and Carolina reaper peppers and described the salad greens she planned to plant for fall harvesting. As a former “nomadic gardener” growing food on tiny plots in multiple locations, Spivey was most excited about the five varieties of watermelon plants already in the ground. “Last year, I wasn’t able to grow much because I didn’t have the space,” she said. “And watermelons need so much space!”

Spivey, Zama, and Flores operate three of 10 different farm businesses at the Urban Farm Incubator at Watkins Regional Park in Prince George’s County, Maryland, located just outside of Washington, D.C. and home to nearly 1 million people. Created by Eco City Farms and several partner organizations, the incubator is meant to provide a stepping stone for early career farmers who want to grow more food in densely populated areas but struggle to access land and other resources.

It’s one of dozens of diverse projects funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production (OUAIP). Although the larger agency has historically focused on serving large-scale farmers in rural areas, it has granted more than $50 million since 2020 to build school and community gardens in Hawaii, expand residential composting in Fort Worth, Texas, and add hydroponic production to an urban farm in Dubuque, Iowa, among dozens of other projects. The office also oversees a federal advisory committee and is working to improve technical assistance and resources for urban farmers, with the establishment of 17 urban service centers announced just last week.

However, the USDA’s work has been stymied by a lack of funding, and now the urban agriculture office could disappear entirely. While lawmakers authorized $25 million annually in the 2018 Farm Bill, Congress must reallocate the money each year. Despite high demand for grant funding, the latest appropriations bills in the House and Senate would eliminate the funding entirely. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) just sent policymakers a letter signed by 140 organizations, farms, and businesses, urging them to change their minds. At the same time, they’re pushing Congress to use the upcoming farm bill to raise the office’s annual budget to $50 million in mandatory funding, which would secure the program’s future.

The OUAIP is a rare example of a new set of programs created in the last farm bill in response to advocacy by NSAC and other groups. Those groups pointed to urban farming’s unique potential to improve food security for the increasing number of Americans who reside in cities while also benefiting community health and well-being in multifaceted ways.

And under the leadership of Secretary Tom Vilsack, the agency has leaned into its new role. “Our office is really helping employees at all levels . . . to understand that USDA supports agriculture regardless of the size of the operation, where it’s located, or how the products are produced,” said Brian Guse, who leads the OAIUP and its team of six.

Now, as the office faces an existential threat, advocates are concerned about losing momentum on a wide array of important projects. “The office has done great work in a very short amount of time,” said Hannah Quigley, a policy specialist at NSAC. “And there’s just so much demand.”

The Need for On-the-Ground Infrastructure

In its first round of grants in 2020, OUAIP had funds to support just 4 percent of the projects submitted. In 2021 and 2022, agency officials were able to draw from money provided through the American Rescue Plan. But even with that influx, they still only funded 40 percent of eligible projects.

“This is a program that is heavily oversubscribed,” said Guse, who explained that the applications have also gotten better as his team has conducted outreach with farmers around the country. On July 18, the USDA announced it had awarded $7.4 million to 25 projects out of more than 300 applications for 2023—just over 8 percent.

Projects that do get support can focus on planning or direct implementation. The Urban Farm Incubator is an example of the latter, and the farm bought two new hoop houses, an irrigation system, and four shipping containers with its $300,000 grant.

“A lot of times somebody will offer you their backyard or a church property, but you’re not going to have water, electrical, or a place for a dump truck to back into.”

Land access is consistently cited as the biggest barrier to success faced by young, beginning, and under-resourced farmers, especially in urban and suburban areas where real estate is more expensive. But Jon Berger, the incubator’s farm manager, said the challenge can be more complicated than finding a patch of ground. Eco City Farms partnered with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which owned the land and was eager to support the project, but infrastructure was the key missing piece.

“A lot of times, somebody will offer you their backyard or a church property,” he said. “But you’re not going to have water, electrical, or a place for a dump truck to back into.”

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Infrastructure is one area in which the OUAIP money has made a real impact, Quigley said. “It’s one of the few grants that actually allows [farms] to buy production equipment.”

To that end, Berger will soon oversee the installation of additional shipping containers with the sides cut out for ventilation. Inside, food waste from the nearby town of Edmonton will be transformed into compost the farmers will use to add fertility to their fields. That project is being funded by a second award through the OAIUP’s composting grant program.

Planning and Policies That Support Urban Farming

In New Haven, Connecticut, the city’s food system policy division also made use of one of those composting grants. It used $90,000 to expand a facility run by Common Ground High School students, who turn the food scraps from their cafeteria into fertilizer for the school’s 1-acre diversified learning farm.

Inside one of the hoop houses at the Urban Farm Incubator. (Photo credit: Lisa Held)

Inside one of the hoop houses at the Urban Farm Incubator. (Photo credit: Lisa Held)

But Latha Swamy and Kimberly Acosta have much broader goals, and they’ve been supported by the OUAIP. With a $500,000 planning grant, the pair initiated a three-year, community-rooted process to create an urban agriculture master plan. The hope, says Swamy, the division’s director, was to address their small city’s “deep and enduring economic and social disparities.”

The grant paid for Acosta to run the process and 33 members of a community advisory board to meet once a month. During the meetings, Acosta provides research on urban agriculture and the board talks through how to apply it to policies, resources, and programs that will work for their city. Swamy and Acosta also hold public meetings for the broader community.

“We have a lot of very diverse growers, but those who make the decisions or have conversations around policy are not reflective of New Haven and all its diversity. That prevents policymaking that really meets all community needs,” Acosta said. In September, when the process concludes, they’ll present a plan that remedies that, with recommendations on new zoning, for example, and resources that the city should make available.

OUAIP grants are supporting other urban agriculture planning processes focused on community input and equity in Newburgh, New York, Tempe, Arizona, and Washington County, Oregon.

At the national level, the new advisory committee on urban agriculture is developing its own recommendations. The USDA selected the first 12 members from among more than 300 applicants, and they include small-scale urban farmers, representatives of indoor agricultural businesses, and researchers. Since the committee’s first public meeting in March 2022, 4,400 people have registered to attend, with more than 250 in-person or written comments provided. During the meetings, members propose recommendations on how the agency might better support farming and food systems in urban areas and vote on each one. After the fifth meeting in August, a summary report of their recommendations will be delivered to Secretary Vilsack.

The Future of Federal Support for Urban Farms

What Vilsack will do with those recommendations depends on many factors, but if Congress zeros out funding for OUAIP for next year, it’s unclear how long the office will even continue to operate.

The 2023 Farm Bill could also alter the course of the USDA’s support for urban farming. The biggest ask from NSAC and other advocacy groups is to boost the office’s funding to $50 million and make it mandatory, which would take it out of the annual appropriations process and guarantee its existence long term. To that end, Senators John Fetterman (D-Pennsylvania) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) introduced a marker bill dubbed the “Supporting Urban and Innovative Farming Act of 2023” on July 28.

“We want to show people that you don’t have to have a farm to have something to eat or to have something green.”

The bill also expands eligibility for grants, investments in research on systems such as hydroponics and aquaponics, and reforms intended to improve technical assistance offered to urban farmers, so that farmers growing vegetables on rooftops begin to have access to the same kinds of USDA resources farmers growing wheat on thousands of acres are used to.

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“We are still hearing that when the [urban ag] office was created, farmers flocked to their local [USDA] service centers to ask for help, and not every office was able to answer questions for those growers,” Quigley said. “We’re looking for the farm bill to be a bit more directive about the type of technical assistance that needs to be available and incorporated across state and local USDA agencies.”

In the meantime, Guse said, OUAIP is working with the USDA’s boots on the ground, such as employees in local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offices, to better equip them with tools to serve urban growers. They’re also prioritizing building networks of people growing food in cities so that those individuals can share knowledge and resources. On July 21, Vilsack traveled to Philadelphia to announce the establishment of 17 urban service centers for city growers. In each city, the USDA chose a partner organization with local expertise. For example, in Philadelphia, Pasa Sustainable Agriculture will offer trainings and support for urban farmers.

Isaac Zama's buckets, planted to demonstrate techniques for growing food in urban spaces where land is unavailable. (Photo credit: Lisa Held)

Isaac Zama’s buckets, planted to demonstrate techniques for growing food in urban spaces where land is unavailable. (Photo credit: Lisa Held)

At the Urban Farm Incubator, research and practices that could be used to inform that kind of future assistance and collaboration are already underway. Two researchers from the University of Maryland stopped by to take soil and leafy green samples for a project evaluating urban farm microbes and their impacts on health and food safety. Farmer Isaac Zama talked at length with Berger, the farm manager, about ways he might control the beetles eating his callaloo plants without harsh chemicals.

At the same time, as it often does in dense areas, the farm work was already spilling out into the surrounding community, offering food and connection. Zama was eager to point out collections of peppers, potatoes, and basil that he had planted into buckets instead of the ground to use as a teaching opportunity for children and adults. “We want to show people that you don’t have to have a farm to have something to eat or to have something green,” he said.

Meanwhile, Spivey was planning to host “pick your own pepper” days in August and sell her watermelons and watermelon juice on-site, timed to when churchgoers across the street would be leaving services. As the day continued to heat up, it was hard to imagine who wouldn’t be grateful for that kind of neighbor.

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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